United States of Japan

We’re proud to present an excerpt from Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan, a spiritual successor to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, out March 1 from Angry Robot Books.

Most of United States of Japan takes place in 1989 following Captain Beniko Ishimura in the office of the censor and Agent Akiko Tsukino, member of the Tokko (the Japanese secret police). Los Angeles is a technological mecca, a fusion of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Tokyo. During WWII, one of the biggest weaknesses the Japanese Empire had was its dependency on oil to which it had very little access. After their shared victory with the Germans, they prioritized developing solar energy and electrical batteries for all their vehicles. That sensibility is reflected in the entire aesthetic of this new Los Angeles, clean, pristine, grand, and gleaming in neon. At the same time, I wanted to contrast this by showing the dark origins of the USJ. To do this, I felt it was important to know what happens in the direct aftermath of the Japanese Empire’s victory in WWII. This was in part influenced by a visit I made to the Japanese American Museum in San Jose, learning about (and being horrified by) the history of what happened back then. This opening chapter takes place forty years before the events of USJ and is about Ben’s parents who were locked away in a Japanese-American Internment Camp, waiting to find out their fate. —Peter Tieryas

 

 

Chapter 1

War Relocation Authority Center #051
July 1, 1948
8:15am

The death of the United States of America began with a series of signatures. Twenty year-old Ruth Ishimura had no idea, imprisoned hundreds of mile away in a prison camp for Americans of Japanese descent. The camp was made up of dilapidated barracks, poorly constructed guard posts, and a barbed fence that surrounded the perimeter. Almost everything was covered in coats of dust and Ruth found it hard to breathe. She shared her room with eleven other women and two of them were comforting one of her roommates, Kimiko.

“They always send him back,” her companions told her.

Kimiko was frayed, her eyes swollen from tears, throat congested with phlegm and dirt. “Last time, they beat Bernard so hard, he couldn’t walk for a month.” Bernard’s only sin was that eight years ago his work took him to Japan for a month. Despite being completely loyal to America, he was under suspicion.

Ruth’s cot was a mess, music sheets scattered over the army blankets. Two of the strings on her violin were broken and the third looked brittle enough to snap at any moment. Her instrument was lying next to faded music sheets from Strauss and Vivaldi. The table, the chairs, even the shelves were built from broken boxes, disassembled crates, and any spare parts they could find. The wood floors were dirty, even though they were swept every morning, and there were gaps she had to be careful not to trip on. The oil stove reeked of overuse and she wished they had something warmer for the freezing nights. She glanced over at Kimiko, who was crying even harder. “This is the first time they’ve kept him overnight,” she said. “They always, always send him back.”

Ruth could see the grim expression on both the women next to Kimiko. An overnight stay usually meant the worst. Ruth sneezed, feeling something stuck in her throat. She pounded her rib cages with the flat end of her fist, hoping her breath would clear. It was early in the morning and already getting hot—weather extremes were normal in this part of the desert. Her neck was covered in sweat and she looked over at the picture of a younger Kimiko, a comely lady who had grown up as heiress to what had once been a fortune.

“Ruth! Ruth!” Outside the barracks, her fiancé, Ezekiel Song, rushed towards the room. “All the guards are gone!” he exclaimed, as he entered.

Ruth rubbed the dust off Ezekiel’s hair and asked, “What are you talking about?”

“The Americans are gone. No one’s seen them all morning. Some of the elders are saying they saw them driving away.”

Kimiko looked up. “The Americans are gone?”

Ezekiel gleamed. “Looks like it.”

“Why?”

“I think they were scared away.”

“Then it’s really happening?” Kimiko asked, hope surging in her voice.

Ezekiel shrugged. “I don’t know for sure. But I heard the Emperor demanded we all be freed.”

“Why would he care about us?”

“Because we’re all Japanese,” Ruth suggested.

“I’m only half Japanese,” Ezekiel replied. His other half was Chinese and he had a scrawny frame and bent shoulders that made him look shorter than he was. Ezekiel had a tanned complexion from his days working in the fields, his skin dried like a prune in sunlight. He was stout, a boyish charm hidden behind his curly black hair that formed a cowlick. “All the elders said we’re American.”

“Not anymore,” Ruth said, aware even those with a sixteenth of Japanese blood in them had been sent to the Japanese-American prison camps independent of actual citizenship. She was thin like most of the other children, with noodly limbs and chapped lips. She had fair skin, although her hair was a disheveled mess that tangled into twisted knots. In contrast to Ezekiel, Ruth stood with poise and determination, refusing to let the dust unnerve her.

“What’s wrong?” Ezekiel asked Kimiko.

“Bernard’s been gone all night,” Kimiko replied.

“Have you checked Wrath Rock?”

“We’re not allowed.”

“Guards aren’t there anymore. We can go check now.”

The five of them made their way out of the small room onto the prison grounds. There were hundreds of barracks equidistant to one another, arranged into dreary, desolate blocks. A sign read War Relocation Authority Center 51, which someone had crossed out and marked in substitution, Wrath 51. Most of the barrack walls were covered with tarred paper that was peeling away, brittle strips that had worn down from the fickle climate. They’d been layered over multiple times to buttress and strengthen the exterior, but their attempts at thickening the skin had only weakened the overall facade. There was the remains of a school, a baseball diamond, what might have passed as a shop, and the semblance of a community, though most of those were either abandoned or in ruins. It was a prison city with a veil of endless dirt and a scorching sun that imposed its will through an exhaustive haze of suppression.

As the group made their way to Wrath Rock, a crowd gathered around the guard tower in the north-west corner. “Go see what’s happening,” one of Kimiko’s companions said.

Ezekiel and Ruth looked to Kimiko, who ignored the crowd and sprinted towards Wrath Rock without them.

The two approached the guard tower that several of the men had begun to investigate. Both the Issei and Nissei watched raptly, shouting instructions, asking questions every step of the way. Ruth did not recognize most of them; there were the elderly Issei who had been the first to immigrate to America, then the younger Nissei who were born in the States. Everyone was there, from the man with three moles on his pig nose to a lady who was wearing broken glasses, and the twins whose faces had diverged in the wrinkles formed from the way they reacted to the bitterness of their experiences. Suffering was an unbiased craftsman, molding flesh on bone, dark recesses dipping into pores of unmitigated tribulation. Most of the prisoners had only a few changes of clothing, keeping what they were wearing as clean as they could manage. Knit bindings prevented them from falling apart, subtly woven in to minimize inconsistencies in the fabric. The shoes were harder to mask as they were worn down, unable to be replaced, sandals and callused feet being common. There were many teens gathered, curious as to what all the noise was about.

“Make sure the Americans aren’t hiding in a compartment.”

“They could just be on break.”

“Did they take their rations?”

“What about their weapons?”

The ones who searched came back after a few minutes and confirmed that the American soldiers had evacuated their posts, taking their weapons with them.

The commotion that followed mainly revolved around the question of what to do next.

“Go back home! What else should we do?” one of the younger men posed.

But the older ones were reluctant. “Go back to what? We don’t even know what’s going on or where we are.”

“What if there’s still fighting out there?”

“We’ll be shot before we get anywhere.”

“What if the Americans are just testing us?”

“Testing us for what? They’re gone.”

Ezekiel looked at Ruth and asked, “What do you want to do?”

“If this is true and they are letting us go… My parents never would have believed it.”

It’d been several years since the soldiers came to her school class and ordered them to go outside and stand in line. She had thought it was for a field trip or something short because they only let her take one suitcase of her belongings. She cried so much when she discovered it was going to be their final day in San Jose and she hadn’t brought any of her favorite books.

There were gasps and urgent exclamations as people pointed south. Ruth looked where the fingers were aiming. A small column of dust presaged a tiny jeep driving their way.

“Which flag is it?” one of the younger men asked.

Eyes went sharply to the side of the jeep, the dust cloud covering the markings.

“It’s American.”

“No, you baka. It’s a big red circle.”

“Are you blind? That’s definitely American.”

With the jeep getting closer, time seemed to stretch. What was only a few meters seemed like kilometers, and some even thought it might be a mirage, taunting them with the illusion of succor. The sun pounded them with its heat and their clothes were getting drenched from sweat and expectation. Every breeze meant Ruth’s lungs became a miasma of breathlessness, but she refused to leave.

“Do you see the flag yet?” someone asked.

“Not yet,” another replied.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?”

“What’s wrong with yours?”

A minute later, it was close enough to espy the markings.

“It’s someone from the Imperial Japanese Army.”

The jeep came to a stop and a staunch young man stepped out. He was almost six feet tall and wore the brown uniform of a Japanese imperial soldier along with a sennibari, a red sash with a thousand stitches to bring good luck. The prisoners surrounded him and asked, “What’s going on out there?”

Before answering them, he bowed to them. With tears bracing against his brows, he said, “You probably don’t recognize me. My name is Sato Fukasaku and I’m a corporal in the IJA. You knew me as Steven when I escaped the camp four years ago and joined the Japanese army. I bring good news.”

Ruth, like most of the others in the group, was incredulous. The Fukasaku boy was an emaciated fourteen year-old boy who was barely five feet tall when he disappeared. Other boys refused to let him play baseball because he was so small and struck out every time he was at bat.

“What’s happened out there?” one of the women asked.

He looked at them with a giddy grin that belied his soldierly presence and stated, “We’ve won.”

“Won what?”

“The American government surrendered this morning,” he said. “This is no longer the United States of America, but the United States of Japan. Some rebels are on the run and they’re trying to make a stand in Los Angeles, but it won’t last long. Not after yesterday.”

“What happened yesterday?”

“The Emperor unleashed a secret weapon to make the Americans realize they have no chance. Buses are on the way and they should be here soon to take you to safety. You’re all to be freed and provided new homes. The Emperor personally asked that you be taken care of. There are over two hundred thousand of us imprisoned throughout the camps who will now be given new opportunities in the USJ. Long live the Emperor!” he yelled.

The Issei instinctively yelled back, “Long live the Emperor,” while the Nissei, having been born in the States, didn’t know they were expected to yell correspondingly.

Fukasaku shouted again, “Tenno Heika Banzai!” which was Japanese for “long live the Emperor.”

This time, everyone followed in unison: “Banzai!

Ruth yelled too, surprised that, for the first time in her life, she felt something like awe swell up in her.

A military truck pulled in behind them.

“To celebrate the good news, we’ve brought food and sake,” Fukasaku stated.

Then Ruth saw something she’d never seen before. Coming out of the driver’s side was a woman in full Imperial uniform. She was ethnically mixed as she had blue eyes with her choppy black hair. Fukasaku saluted her and said, “Welcome, lieutenant.”

She waved off his gesture, looked to the crowd with empathetic eyes, and said, “On behalf of the Empire, I honor all of you for your sacrifice and suffering.” She bowed low and kept the stance, signifying her deep feeling. She spoke with a perfect English accent so she must have been Nissei. Ruth realized she wasn’t the only one surprised by the female officer. The prisoners were staring at her, never having seen a male soldier salute a female superior. Ruth’s eyes went to the shin gunto, the army sword that was a form of badge for any officer. “My name is Masuyo Yoshida. I grew up in San Francisco, like many of you, where I had a western identity as Erica Blake. My mother was a brave Japanese woman who taught me the importance of our culture. Like you, I was imprisoned, falsely accused of espionage, and separated from my family. The IJA rescued me and gave me a new Japanese name and identity to cast off my false Western one. We were never accepted as Americans, and it was our folly to seek it. I am now a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army and you are all citizens of the Empire. All of you will be given new identities as well. We should celebrate!”

From the back of the truck, four soldiers carted out barrels of alcohol.

“Someone go get the cups.”

It wasn’t long before everyone was cheering the Emperor and asking Steven/Sato details about the war. Some of the elders took Lieutenant Yoshida on a tour of the prison grounds. Ezekiel’s face was flushed red from the alcohol and he said to Ruth, “We both should join the army.”

“What will you do? I can do more pushups than you can,” she teased him.

“I’ll get into shape.” He flexed his muscles.

“It looks like a little mouse,” she said, feeling the small bump on his arm. “Did you notice they both have the new Nambu Type 18 semi-automatic pistols?”

“I didn’t even see their guns.”

“The Type 18 is supposed to fix the weaker striker recoil springs and make them much stronger. The older model had 8mm cartridges and—”

Suddenly, there was screaming. Everyone turned around. There were multiple voices wailing from the direction of Wrath Rock. In the shock of all that had transpired, Ruth realized she had forgotten about Kimiko.

Wrath Rock was the only building with three floors in the complex, housing the soldiers as well as a special interrogation center. It was made of red bricks, a big rectangular building with two wings jutting from its sides. Disturbing howls often emanated from the building in the middle of the night, and depending on the angle and strength of the moonlight, it glowed like a crimson stone oozing blood rays. Everyone approaching the building did their best to suppress shudders. The American flag was still waving high above the Rock.

A dozen prisoners had been carried out, emaciated, bloodied, and bruised.

“What happened here?” Corporal Fukasaku asked.

A man wearing only a loincloth with half his hair ripped out shouted, “They killed my brothers and accused me of collaborating with the Empire. I wish I had!” He tried to spit on the ground, but his mouth was too dry to form anything. His scalp was covered with gashes, and his wide nostrils and bulging eyes made him resemble a chimpanzee. He was pulsing with anger and he yelled, “I’m an American and they treated me worse than their dogs.”

The corporal replied, “The Emperor has come to save all of you. He has taken revenge on the Americans for all of us.”

From the front door, Kimiko emerged, holding a body in her arms.

Ruth gasped. It was Bernard, but his legs were missing, only bandaged stumps in their place. Kimiko’s face was wan and there was a shocked stillness in her eyes as though they’d been frozen. Ruth looked at Bernard to see if he was breathing, but she couldn’t tell.

“Poor Kimiko,” Ruth heard someone say. “Their family was so wealthy and now they’ve taken everything from her.”

“The rich had it the hardest.”

Many agreed with deploring nods.

“Sister…” Corporal Fukasaku began.

But, before he could continue, Kimiko demanded in rage, “Why didn’t the Emperor save him? Why couldn’t he have rescued us just a day earlier?”

“I am very sorry for your loss. Please keep in mind that it wasn’t the Emperor who killed your friend, but the Americans. I assure you, the Emperor has taken revenge a hundredfold for what has happened to all of you here.”

“I don’t care about revenge. He’s dead. HE’S DEAD!” she yelled. “If the Emperor was so almighty, why couldn’t he have sent you a day earlier?”

“Calm yourself. I know you’re upset, but speaking against the Emperor is forbidden.”

“Fuck the Emperor. Fuck you. Fuck all Americans.”

“I will only ask you once, and that’s because I know you’re not in a proper mental state. Do not speak against the Emperor or—”

“Or what? He’ll take his revenge? I shit on him and the whol—”

Corporal Fukasaku raised his Nambu Type 18 semi-automatic pistol, pointed at her head, and fired. Her head exploded, brain and blood spraying the ground. She fell over, arms interlaced with her dead boyfriend.

“No one is allowed to speak against the Emperor,” the corporal stated. He holstered his pistol, stepped around Kimiko’s dead body, and went to reassure the other survivors that everything was going to be OK.

Everyone was too stunned to speak. Ezekiel was shaking. Ruth put her arm around him and asked, “Do you still want to be a soldier?” It was as much for herself as it was for him.

She looked back at Kimiko’s body and did her best to hold back tears.

“You have to be strong,” she said to Ezekiel, as she placed his hands on her belly. “For little Beniko, be strong.”

Excerpted from United States of Japan © Peter Tieryas 2016

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